Thursday, January 26, 2012

32 Million Reasons to Cheer the USDA

There are 32 million reasons why the USDA's new school meal standards are good news. That's the number of children who participate in the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs in the U.S. and who will soon be served far more nutritious, and hopefully delicious school meals.

Announced by First Lady Michelle Obama, who was instrumental in getting the new rules written by ensuring that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010, the updated meal standards are a huge improvement, in spite of last minute meddling by Congress. The standards are based on 2009 Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations and they include:

• Doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables offered;
• Increasing the variety of vegetables served to include dark greens, red/orange and legumes;
• Increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods - half the grains must be whole grain-rich by July and all must be whole grain-rich by start of the school year in 2014;
• Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties (flavored must be fat free);
• Limiting calories based on the age of children being served, to ensure proper portion size; and
• Reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

The total cost of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will be $3.2 billion over five years (down from $6.8 billion in the USDA's proposed rule). Since it does cost more to serve healthier meals, the increased costs have been covered by program changes and funding provisions such as:

• Eliminating the meat/meat substitute requirement at breakfast;
• Lengthening the timeline for adding fruit to breakfast;
• Providing an additional 6 cent federal reimbursement per meal for lunches that meet the new standards;
• Ensuring that a la carte offerings are no longer subsidized by school meals (in some schools, this means that a la carte food prices will rise); and
• Allowing students to opt for smaller servings of fruits and vegetables to help eliminate "plate waste."

Margo Wootan, Director, Nutrition Policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has led the fight to improve school food over the past decade, was happy with the final standards. "These are the first ever school meal standards for whole grains, trans fat and sodium," said Wootan. "The only disappointments I have are the ones Congress forced on the USDA -- continuing to count pizza as a vegetable and allowing French fries to be served every day."

So what does this all mean for America's children?

As a long time school food reformer who has watched countless children consume high calorie, low-nutrition school meals that I wouldn't serve to my dog, I believe that this is a giant step forward. Just the fact that every student who purchases a school lunch will soon have to take a fruit and/or vegetable as a component of their meal is revolutionary. And in one fell swoop, the USDA has eliminated full fat and 2% milk from school meals - high fat beverages that our increasingly overweight children don't need. The USDA has provided a sample before and after elementary school menu.

Next on the horizon, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is the USDA proposed rule for school a la carte or competitive foods, scheduled to be released in the next few months. If Congress doesn't meddle again and the USDA proposes science-based standards for these foods sold outside the meal programs, our nation's schools could become places where mostly healthy choices reign. What a refreshing thought - that our schools could actually model the nutrition habits that our government recommends in the Dietary Guidelines - rather than continually contradicting them and undermining parents.

But a la carte/competitive foods like sugary drinks, chips, ice cream and candy are big business for Big Food and Beverage. So expect more deep-pocketed lobbying of Congress by their friends in the food industry in an attempt to maintain the status quo (e.g., their profits) at the expense of our children's health.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Top Six Food Politics Lessons Learned in 2011

This hasn’t been a banner year for improving America’s food system, food environment or food policies. A look back demonstrates that not only have we failed to make any new progress in food and nutrition policy, but we actually appear to be moving backwards in some instances. Here’s why:

1. Congress is in bed with Big Food and under five layers of blankets- One of the most remarkable things food reformers learned this year was just how much influence deep-pocketed Big Food corporations exert over the current Congress. The answer – when it comes to proposed nutrition policy, if Big Food talks, Congress listens and does what industry wants – America’s kids be damned. Big Food successfully derailed or has worked overtime to weaken National School Lunch Program (NSLP) nutrition standards (pizza is a vegetable!), voluntary guidelines for foods that can be marketed to kids (see Marion Nestle’s insightful post on this development), the 2012 Farm Bill (a scary version of which was drafted behind closed doors) and federal menu labeling requirements. And the food industry is already taking aim at the rules being written by the USDA as mandated by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act – rules that would improve the nutritional content of competitive foods (foods that are not sold as a part of the NSLP). 2012 should bring more of the same thanks to our anti-nutrition policy Congress.

2. The First Lady is a Strong Advocate for Food Policy, Except When We Get Close to an Election Year- Michele Obama’s wonderful Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity has veered sharply away from supporting policies to improve the food environment for children (the First Lady was instrumental in getting the Healthy, Hunger Free Kid’s Act passed in 2010) to brokering voluntary agreements with food corporations and focusing on physical activity. Now there’s nothing wrong with voluntary agreements to improve nutrition – unless they’re in lieu of policy, which is the only truly sustainable way to improve our food system and food environment. The First Lady has been conspicuously and painfully silent as Big Food spent millions to successfully weaken the Healthy, Hunger Free Kid’s Act, attacked the IWG voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to kids (Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done a wonderful job of leading the fight to get these voluntary guidelines passed) and the Farm Bill was negotiated in secret. The closer we get to election year, the more Mrs. Obama seems to shy away from supporting policies that may inflame Big Food. She recently announced a new focus on getting kids to move which Michele Simon brilliantly questioned in “Sorry Mrs. O, but Jumping Jacks Aren’t Enough.” Will the feisty, policy-supporting Mrs. Obama, please come back in 2012?

3. Big Food Will Go to Great (and Humorous) Lengths to Try to Reframe the Message on Food Reform- If the health problems in this country weren’t so serious and costly, we could actually have a good laugh at some of Big Food’s more memorable attempts to reframe themselves as champions of a healthy, sustainable food system. Big Ag formed a new alliance, the United States Farmer’s and Rancher’s Alliance (USFRA), which introduced a new marketing campaign to mend its tattered image. Funny thing is that while USFRA describes itself as representing the average farmer, it appears that the groups’ funding this heartwarming campaign are mostly Big Ag concerns including Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Dupont and dozens of Big Ag trade organizations, which are often at odds with the needs of the average farmer. In another wacky development, Andy Bellatti informed us of McDonald’s new “farmwashing” campaign, where America’s largest fast food corporation, in a fit of McChutzpah, tries to portray their menu as “farm to fork.” How about telling the truth, McDonalds? It’s Big Ag farm to factory to fork at the golden arches.

4. Big Food and Conservatives Have their Antenna Up for Any “Proof” that Food Policy Doesn’t Work- Food industry and conservative critics have jumped on a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) report about participation decline in their school lunch program since healthier food replaced junk. These critics claim that the LAUSD experience proves that kids won’t eat healthier food and in the case of one conservative blogger, Michele Malkin, that the LAUSD experience is indicative of government waste and the “nanny state” (see Bettina Elias Siegel’s fine rebuttal). Similarly, critics gleefully report that the Seattle public school system may bring back unhealthy foods into their vending machines due to a drop in vending revenue, which hurts after-school programs. Reality-check time. Does anyone really think that Los Angeles’ and Seattle’s children who have been raised, since birth, on a steady diet of unhealthy junk and processed foods and are shockingly unfamiliar with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and other healthy fare would change their palates easily and rejoice at the healthy changes in schools? It took decades to teach America’s kids to prefer unhealthy food. Yet we’re ready to throw in the towel and serve kids the same garbage that has made them the first generation in history that may see a drop in their life expectancy thanks to the epidemic of obesity and related chronic diseases? Conservatives have had no problem being patient for 8 years as the U.S. fought a deadly and costly war in Iraq to root out terrorism. I guess our kid’s health isn’t as important.

5. Big Food is Cleverly Using Philanthropy to Silence Potential Critics- If you’ve ever wondered why fine health organizations like the American Dietetic Association, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, Susan G. Komen For the Cure or the American Academy of Family Physicians accept funding from Big Food behemoths such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey’s, McDonald’s, or KFC, your hunch is probably right. Funding is always tight for non-profits and Big Food knows it. That’s why they dangle huge sums of money in front of public health and health organizations that many seem unable to refuse – even if the money is clearly tainted. And once a health organization accepts Big Food money, they rarely will criticize the food or beverage industry. There needs to be an aggressive campaign to convey how damaging it is to the food reform movement when health organizations accept Big Food philanthropy. And groups that take this tainted money should be publicly shamed. The “good” that they can do with that money is miniscule in comparison to the damage they do with their apparent public support of unhealthy food and drink.

6. Food Reformers Need to Get Tough and Use Different Tactics if We Want to Win - Earlier this year, I wrote about how food reformers’ focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by Big Food’s money and messaging. If ever a year demonstrated how food reformer’s need to “up their game” it was 2011. The food industry’s clever advocacy, marketing, lobbying and messaging tactics torpedoed or weakened several important food policies (see Lesson #1, above) that would have made a huge difference in the lives of both kids and adults. We can’t win policy fights with industry if we don’t use similar tactics. It’s also critical that food reform funders start funding counter-marketing, advocacy and messaging campaigns. Yes, Big Food and Big Ag will always have more lobbying/advocacy money than public health advocates. But as the tobacco wars demonstrated, advocacy funding and a strong counter-marketing campaign (the Truth Campaign) can make a huge difference and change public perceptions of industry. Michele Simon’s recent post 2012: The Year to Stop Playing Nice, should be a wake-up call to the world of public health.

This was first published in the Huffington Post on December 27, 2011.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Paula Deen at the Crossroads: Punch Line or Role Model?

American’s foremost peddler of excessive butter, cream, salt and sugar, chef Paula Deen, has finally confirmed rumors that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago. Her timing for this announcement was clearly no accident as she also revealed that she is now a paid spokesperson for the Novo-Nordisk diabetes drug, Victoza.

Ms. Deen, whose high-calorie recipes and super-sized portions have made her both a Food Network favorite and a public health nightmare, appears appallingly opportunistic for simultaneously revealing both her diagnosis and a deal with a pharmaceutical company. But could this announcement by one of America’s most high-profile chefs actually be a blessing in disguise, particularly for her devoted fan base? Could her diagnosis act as a wake up call to those in denial about the relationship between what you eat and your health? It certainly could, if Ms. Deen chooses the right path.

In a rocky start, Ms. Deen demonstrated a healthy dose of both denial and damage control on the Today Show when she refused to acknowledge that her weight and/or eating habits contributed to her illness. “On my show I share all these yummy, fattening recipes but I tell people (to eat) in moderation,” Ms. Deen said. She claimed she’s always eaten in moderation and reminded Americans that, “I’m your cook, not your doctor.”

No one I know would go to Ms. Deen for medical advice. However, on the cooking front, this charming and up-from-the-bootstraps southern chef is an inspiration to many. And that’s why her diagnosis with a serious, chronic disease that is heavily related to unhealthy food choices may actually resonate with Americans.

For those unfamiliar with why diabetes is such a devastating ailment, here’s a brief primer. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), Type 2 diabetes is a major cause of heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, amputation, and blindness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death listed on U.S. death certificates in 2007. And if current trends continue, 1 of 3 U.S. adults will have diabetes by 2050. The good news? More than 85 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight and weight reduction can prevent onset.

No question that there’s been a collective haze of denial hovering over America for decades as waistlines increased dramatically along with hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol counts. With Big Food refusing to play a meaningful role in the overhaul of our disease-producing food system, and federal legislators unable to pass important policies that would help reshape the nation’s food environment, Americans have been lulled into a sense of complacency about what we eat. Enter Ms. Deen, America’s most visible cheerleader for unhealthy eating habits, who even after her diagnosis said diabetes won’t change how she cooks. Imagine the impact she could have if she renounced her old lifestyle and began publicly modeling a healthier one.

As it stands, Ms. Deen is at a crossroads. Her fame and diagnosis have presented her with a unique opportunity, which can create a legacy as either a role model or a punch line. So far she’s hurtling down the punch line path – encouraging Americans to pop a pill for their diabetes while continuing to hawk fare like deep-fried cheesecake, deep-fried lasagna, deep-fried stuffing on a stick (are you sensing a pattern here?) and her notorious Lady’s Brunch Burger which consists of a burger topped with bacon and fried egg on a sliced glazed donut.

But it’s not too late for her to toss out the deep fryer, modify her recipes and admit she was wrong. A reinvented Paula Deen, cooking wholesome, tasty, healthier food and modeling a physically active lifestyle would be an inspiration to her legion of trusting fans. Everyone loves a celebrity resurrection, and Ms. Deen sure could use one right now.

So if Ms. Deen is reading this, let me sum up my advice. Ditch the Novo-Nordisk gig, admit you’ve seen the light and become America’s dietary savior. You’ll save lives. You’ll earn new respect. You won’t even miss those Twinkie Pies or Fried Butter Balls as you bask in your newfound role of Dietary Role Model in Chief. And as an added bonus, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll live to see your grandchildren grow up.

Could this be the true meaning behind the expression, “the South will rise again?”